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Imminent Vikings stadium bill: What it could contain, how to think about it

One proposed stadium design.
Ellerbe Becket
One proposed stadium design.

A Vikings stadium bill is imminent at the Legislature. We’re hearing the stadium legislation could be introduced within the next 24 hours, and certainly by week’s end.

In the current Capitol political environment, amid cutbacks and no-new-tax mantras, and with lukewarm backing from legislative leaders, exactly how a nearly $1 billion sports facility bill passes in this train-wreck of a session is anyone’s guess.

“Thirty, 40 percent chance, at best,” one nervous advocate told me the other day.

But before we know all the devilish details and argue about them, it might be time to rethink or, at least, remember what a Vikings stadium deal is supposed to mean.

Before we tear any bill apart — and there will be plenty of time for that — we should take a more macro view of this issue. Let’s try not to forget what the team means to the community, how it helps to “brand” the state on autumn Sundays, how 70 percent of the state’s TV sets in every legislative district are watching Vikings games on those Sundays, how the team’s player and staff income taxes bring in more than $10 million a year to state coffers.

Then we need to root for a socially responsible deal that can be creative without burdening taxpayers now or in the future, and without giving the team owners a sweetheart deal.

That will be no small feat while Local Government Aid is whacked, public transit is attacked, higher education support is sacked, health and human services programs dismantled and business leaders stand on the sidelines.

We’ve written that a Vikings franchise relocation to Los Angeles isn’t around the corner, but it is, at some point, possible.

As 2011 becomes 2012, and after the NFL’s labor woes eventually fade away, we will be sliding into the zone of possible. This latest piece of legislation is a first step to confronting that path. Good luck, Ted Mondale. You knew not what you signed on for.

The bill
It looks like the initial bill is going to be a familiar document: An $800 million to $1 billion roofed stadium, with the team, the state and a so-called “local partner” splitting the financing in thirds.

(We’ve ranted about such “contributions” in the past, about the state always ducking and the burden always falling on a small set of local taxpayers, but not today.)

The bill will apparently will be “site neutral” and will set up some mechanism for site selection. We’re likely to see history repeating itself. There’s been talk of a provision to appoint a representative group that will vet and determine site selection for the Legislature and governor.

This process was used in the late 1970s when the Metrodome was sited in downtown Minneapolis; once that decision was made, every other community in the metro area turned its back on funding the new stadium. A Minneapolis-only downtown hotel/motel and liquor tax had to be used. So much for the team being a state or regional asset, as so many people like to say, but no one likes to pay for.

For my money — and yours — the current Metrodome site or one near it, on the so-called Star Tribune site, are the best places. Central Corridor LRT links, familiarity with the location, cheap land acquisition, minimal infrastructure improvements, etc.

But, if there’s a committee to examine all this, we should get a hard and honest assessment of a Farmers’ Market site closer to Target Field — opposed by Mayor R.T. Rybak and City Council President Barbara Johnson — and, even, the suburban Arden Hills possibility. That one in the St. Paul suburb seems to be the most costly, but could be the most profitable for the Vikings, what with tailgating and massive parking lots.

A real estate consultant’s report paid for by the city about the expected costs of the Farmers’ Market site notes that the analysis was “very preliminary.” Let’s give it a fuller look.

We won’t get to any site issue, of course, if this bill has no legislative support.

What about this alternative?
There’s another idea floating around — and not in the bill — that should be examined by lawmakers and any site selection committee: that’s the notion of keeping the Metrodome open and operating for non-Vikings events, and building an open-air stadium for the Vikings nearby or, even, elsewhere.

At first blush, it sounds silly. It would, of course, add to our glut of sports facilities here — Xcel Energy Center, Target Center, TCF Bank Stadium, Target Field, plus a potential new Vikings stadium and a new-roofed, 30-year-old Dome.

But it could actually save the public money. How?

First — at least temporarily — it provides a place for the Vikings to play while a new stadium is built (if it’s built). No need to shoehorn the team into the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium for two seasons.

Second, if you reduce the cost of a new stadium by $200 million by not putting a roof on it, you save about $15 million a year in debt service. Keeping the Metrodome open for such events as college baseball, high school football and soccer and other community-oriented sports events would likely cost less than $10 million a year.

The Vikings have never wanted a roof on the stadium. The real chances of this community getting regular men’s NCAA Final Fours or even regionals is unlikely, and often not worth the cost. And one Super Bowl in 30 years is not worth $200 million.

As this bill moves forward, a good analysis of this “keep the Metrodome open” option could inform the pricing of a new stadium. Might wind up being stupid, but it’s worth a look.

This two-stadium notion goes to another issue in any legislation and potential stadium lease: Who pays for the operations of this stadium, if and when it somehow finds political support and funding?

For those who criticized the Twins legislation of five years ago on general principles, the Twins lease is solid for at least one big reason: The team funds all the operations of Target Field. In the Twins’ first season at the downtown Minneapolis ballpark, their operational costs were significantly higher than they expected. The team paid, not the Hennepin County-backed Minnesota Ballpark Authority.

But in exchange for the risks of unexpected increased operational costs, the team controls all the revenues flowing into the stadium. Just about every dime.

If the Vikings want such an arrangement — all the cash — they will have to give up something in exchange. Does the team want to pay for all the heat and lights and upkeep of a new stadium? If the team gets all the revenues — even from non-Vikings events — shouldn’t it pay to run the place?

Naming rights
This leads to who controls one of the most coveted and reliable revenue sources to pay for a stadium: its potential naming rights.

Apparently, there’s been a debate among bill sponsors and the team about who should control those dastardly corporate names on publicly funded stadiums, the worst case being, of course, ill-fated Enron Field in Houston.

About a decade ago, this once rabble-rousing reporter wrote that we shouldn’t even have corporate names on our public facilities, that they should be named after local heroes or heroines, a la Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St. Paul or the formal name, Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.

That assertion came when I threw in the towel about the hyper-corporate nature of stadiums and pro sports. If a company like Target or TCF Bank or Xcel Energy wants to link itself with pro sports and is willing to pay up to $10 million a year so its signs dominate a building and it can be joined at the hip with the tenant teams, well, then, let’s take the money and name.

But here’s the question: Why should the team get all the money from naming rights?

The politics of at least asking that question are attractive: The stadium’s going to be paid for mostly by the public, so we should get some of that reliable naming rights cash, right? We’re “partners,” aren’t we?

This sharing is not the general national model. In most cases — as with the Twins and Target Field — the team gets the naming rights revenues, which are guaranteed to be steady and a stream against which they can borrow other money.

But in some cases in the NFL — Jacksonville, Denver and, most recently, in a new stadium plan for the San Francisco 49ers — the public is sharing some cash from the naming rights. The tenant/team continues to work with the naming-rights buyer on marketing matters and captures that dough.

The other naming-rights news recently was the reported $600 million or $700 million naming deal that stadium management and entertainment conglomerate AEG scored with Farmers Insurance to help build a new NFL stadium in Los Angeles and lure a team.

No money has changed hands there. No stadium has been built. No team has been acquired. Indeed, such a naming rights deal implies that AEG wants to own an L.A. team, not simply have someone like Zygi Wilf move his team to Los Angeles.

A stadium in Minnesota cannot expect that sort of lucrative deal. A $7 million-a-year naming-rights arrangement here would be a good deal in this economy. New stadiums in New York and Dallas have gone without naming rights because owners sought too much.

Chances are, when all is said and done, public negotiators here will cede the naming rights to the team — with various caveats and approvals about which sorts of companies can be used (no tobacco, no alcohol, etc.) — but the public should get something in exchange.
How about this: if the team is going to control the naming rights, shouldn’t it be more transparent with its finances to its public partners? It’s been reported the Wilfs are carrying lots of debt on the team they bought six years ago, and that there have been cash calls to members of the ownership group to boost the team’s finances.

If that’s the case, we — as potential partners — need to know just how successful this team and its owners are. We don’t want to get stuck with another Target Center, rescuing a team and a building.

There’s another issue for the public and Legislature to think about. If the Wilfs invested $600 million in the team and must invest another $350 million in the stadium and then want to sell the team, who will buy this team in Minnesota for $950 million a few years down the road?

A football team in Minnesota for a billion dollars? Who in this town would buy that?

Fundamental questions to answer
It’s fitting that the Vikings debate comes at time when the fundamental questions at the Capitol are these: Who do we, as a state, as Minnesotans, want to be? How as a state do we want to be known? What is our “brand,” and what can we do to retain it?

For decades, the brand has been strong schools, home to a great land-grant university and state and private colleges, to the best that arts can offer, land of solid corporate citizens, to a community open to, if struggling with, diversity, to a flourishing and respected gay and lesbian community, to the great outdoors and clean water … you name it.

The Vikings — those helmeted millionaire warriors who broadcast their weekly TV show to the rest of the world — they’re part of the brand, too, a small part, but a globally recognized brand.

What are they worth to keep? What is this piece of our state brand worth to keep? This latest piece of legislation, soon to land at the Capitol, is another vehicle for Minnesota’s political leaders and citizens to figure it out.

MinnPost’s Jay Weiner has covered sports facilities issues in the Twin Cities since 1993 and the demise of Met Center and public buyout of Target Center. He is the author of “Stadium Games: Fifty Years of Big League Greed and Bush League Boondoggles,” University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Comments (25)

  1. Submitted by Brian Simon on 03/29/2011 - 10:53 am.

    Here’s one way to ‘think about’ it…

    “the team’s player and staff income taxes bring in more than $10 million a year to state coffers”

    So, if we’re on the hook for $500 million, it will take 50 years (ignoring that the present value of future revenue is lower) to pay off that money with the income tax revenue from overpaid staff and players for the vikings. Given the fungible nature of entertainment dollars, we’d get that revenue anyway, as Minnesotans shift their spending habits in the absence of an NFL franchise.

  2. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 03/29/2011 - 10:57 am.

    The public seems pretty clear on this: no public funds. You want a stadium, build it. I had dinner with two right-of center friends the other day (and I’m quite left); this was one of the few areas of total agreement.

    I’m still curious at the complete dismissal of the radical notion that the Wilf’s self-finance their playpen. You dismissed the 5 or so teams that have done so as outliers; I still would like to know why. Is Bob Kraft a more upstanding citizen such that he chose to not gouge the New England public? Is he just not as savvy as Zigi (hard to fathom; see the Randy Moss debacle for one example)?

    Let them pay, and if they don’t want to, let them leave. The picture comes in great whether the team is 8 miles away or 800; most of us can’t afford to go to the games in person anyways, so what’s the difference? Fine, we lose 10 million in tax revenue from salaries- we save 600 million up front. People will still eat out, they’ll go to other games, and life will move on.

  3. Submitted by frank watson on 03/29/2011 - 11:12 am.

    Truly a glowing article on why we should build a stadium. It’s like putting lipstick on a pig.

  4. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 03/29/2011 - 11:21 am.

    2 other points:
    1) The vikings as “a globally recognized brand”. Most non-americans view football as an odd sport emblematic of America- lots of hype, violence, and arbitrary rules. You could argue that losing a team hurts our reputation within the US, but frankly most foreigners would likely be impressed that at least one locale saw the light.

    2) The fact that the Wilfs put a lot of money in up front, and now are left with something where you say “Who in this town would buy that?” is not really the public’s problem. Are they the latest in the “too big to fail” line-up?

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/29/2011 - 11:27 am.

    I think this is the second time Mr. Wiener has tried to tell us how we should think about stadiums and frankly it’s kind of irksome. Jay, just show us the deal and we’ll tell you what we think. By the way, I notice that you don’t actually have a deal to show us yet.

    It’s abundantly clear that the billionaire owners of these teams will accept nothing short of “sweetheart” deals that include hundreds of millions of public dollars, and any deal that includes all that public money is by definition a sweetheart deal for the owners. You want to spend $30 million dollars a year in order to get $10 back? Any deal that doesn’t yield more than it costs isn’t a deal, it’s a subsidy. Here’s how to think about it: Is it appropriate for a government to decide it’s not OK for government to run state prisons, but it is OK to subsidize pro-sports? We’re talking about privatizing prisons, and subsidizing pro-sports. Pro sports isn’t trying to fill a $5 billion hole in their budget, and they don’t provide a public service. You think it makes sense for the government to care more about how much a Viking’s ticket costs than how much a bus or a light rail ticket costs? The Republicans want to cut around $30 million from light rail and raise the cost of the tickets $4.00. So we’re not subsidizing public transport, but we’re gonna subsidize Ziggy Wilf’s investment?

    Vikings as state brand? I’ll say it again, we’re actually better off without them. For one thing, I was just down in Panama, and even they laugh when you mention the Vikings for some reason, some “brand”.

    Beyond that the team, it’s players, it’s stadiums, and economic drain on the public purse, are all distractions and corruptions of public priorities. These teams warp our economics, capture a disproportionate amount of attention, and divert public resources into a small number of already wealthy pockets. No one’s going to die if we don’t have a pro-team in town, but we killed people when cut funding for 35,000+ people. If we’re gonna raise $30 million dollars a year for something, it needs to be for the public, not for guarantees on billionaire sports investments.

  6. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/29/2011 - 12:47 pm.

    “Why should the team get all the money from naming rights?”

    Since money is fungible, it doesn’t make a lot of difference who gets the naming rights. Presumably if the state retains them, the amount of money the Vikings will throw into the stadium deal will be reduced by some portion of their value. IMO, the naming rights should go to the party who is most capable of making the best deal with whoever buys them, and I think that the Wilfs. Maybe the deal between the Wilf and Vikings should include some sort of incentive provision by which the Vikings would benefit from the deal the Wilfs might negotiate on their joint behalf.

    It’s very easy to think of the Wilfs as the guys on the other side of the table. But it’s also good to keep in mind that when and if the deal gets done, the Wilf’s will be our partners and that our interests will be bound up with theirs.

  7. Submitted by William Souder on 03/29/2011 - 02:46 pm.

    Seriously? This is how MinnPost had decided to “cover” the stadium issue–by lobbying hard and often for one? Let me just say that between you and Steve Berg MinnPost has pretty much cornered the market on one-side analysis.

    As other commenters have pointed out…and as we have known for years now…the public is adamantly opposed to publicly funding a stadium for the Vikings. How do you get from there to the absolute necessity of a stadium because of what “the teams means to the community?”

    And what are we to make of the insistence of the Wilfs and a handful of deranged legislators who want to consider a stadium bill before we’ve even begun to address the state’s catastrophic fiscal condition? If your position is that we need to analyze HOW a stadium gets built and not IF one gets built…and I take it that’s where you’re coming from…then I guess this all makes sense. Crazy.

  8. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/29/2011 - 02:50 pm.

    On the basis of pure practicality, any building in the downtown area WILL be significantly more expensive than one located more at the periphery.

    One of the most overlooked costs of construction is the relocation/redistribution of underground services and parking issues, especially in congested downtown streets. The scale of those costs for the Target Field and Target Arena were a very significant cost to taxpayers and ratepayers that did not show up directly on the bottom line of the total cost of those projects. But you and I paid them, either in taxes or in utility rates.

  9. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 03/29/2011 - 02:59 pm.

    The majority of Minnesotans (75% is the number I recall from a poll last fall) don’t want public funds spent on this modern-day gladiators arena, and thus don’t want to be “partners” with the Wilfs. It’s a nice, unity-building concept to call it a partnership, but it’s a funny partnership where one party is being dragged in kicking and screaming. Once you chain them teogether, sure, makes sense to work for common good. But, makes even more sense to realize that the partnership is a sham, and not force it upon the people.

  10. Submitted by Tony Spadafora on 03/29/2011 - 03:01 pm.

    A non-site specific stadium bill? Order the moving trucks. The Vikings will soon have league approval to be sold and moved to LA.

    A non-site specific stadium bill is worthless; a total waste of precious time; ill-conceived, counterproductive, totally without merit. It’s DUMB!!

    Obviously some idiot political consultant convinced our Governor and legislators that a non-site specific bill has a better political chance of passing. I think that consultant is really working for Zygi.

    Passing a bill without a site will give the Vikings an out… How could they possibly commit to a stadium plan without a site?

    There are three major stadium issue questions that need to be answered to build consensus…. Where should the new stadium be built? What kind of stadium should be built? and How will the stadium project be funded?

    Answer those questions and then write the legislation.

  11. Submitted by Mike Hicks on 03/29/2011 - 03:39 pm.

    Honestly, I’d like to see the Vikings transition to a model similar to that of the Packers — they’re a non-profit corporation with shares owned by the public (though the shares can’t really be sold or traded, so they’re basically just certificates representing a donation). Their entire market capitalization, if you can call it that, is basically around $950 million.

    It’d probably make sense to sell shares for a new Vikings stadium. In exchange for that huge investment, Zygi Wilf and the other owners would either be paid off or simply stripped of their ownership of the team.

  12. Submitted by Tony Spadafora on 03/29/2011 - 04:12 pm.

    Know what “buying a pig in a poke is?” If not, “google” it.

    Non-site specific stadium legislations would be voting on a “PIG IN A POKE.”

    Who comes up with this bull??

  13. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/29/2011 - 05:02 pm.

    I don’t see how you can have a deal unless you make a deal.

  14. Submitted by Tony Spadafora on 03/29/2011 - 09:14 pm.

    The funding from private sources involved in the last ten new NFL stadiums:

    Dallas Cowboys Stadium — 2009
    Dallas Cowboys…………………… 70.7% of $1.194 billion

    New Measowlands Stadium– 2009
    NY Giants & Jets…………………… 100% of $1.600 billion

    Lucas Oil Stadium — 2008
    Indianapolis Colts…………………. 14% of $719.6 million

    University of Phoenix Stadium — 2006
    Arizona Cardinals…………………. 32% of $455.7 million

    Lincoln Financial Field– 2003
    Philadelphia Eagles……………….. 64% of $518 million

    Gillette Stadium — 2002
    New England Patriots…………….. 83% of $412 million

    Ford Field — 2002
    Detriot Lions……………………….. 75% of $440 million

    Reliant Stadium — 2002
    Houston Texans…………………… 39% of $474 million

    Qwest Field — 2002
    Seattle Seahawks………………….. 35% of $461.3 million

    Heinz Field — 2001
    Pittsburgh Steelers……………….. 39% of $280.8 million

    The unweighted average of funding from private sources is 55.2%.
    59.7% if you remove the dismal Colts stadium from the last 10 new stadiums.

    If the want the weighted average do the math… but the % from private sources will go up.

    Plus the 49ers new stadium in Santa Clara funding is 88% from private sources and the two stadium proposed in LA will be 100% privately funded.

    One third the cost of an open-air stadium is pathetic!!

  15. Submitted by WIlliam Bentley on 03/29/2011 - 10:44 pm.

    It’s good to see more talk of building a less expensive open-air stadium and leaving the metrodome standing. Assuming a stadium is built, this is by far the best and most cost effective option.

    And for the record, anyone who has stepped foot out of the state in their lifetime knows that Minnesota’s “brand” is cold and funny accents. That’s it.

  16. Submitted by Tony Spadafora on 03/29/2011 - 11:59 pm.

    Building a third new open-air stadium and keeping the obsolete Metrodome standing makes no sense whatsoever. Who’s going to fund the Metrodome’s maint. & operating expenses? The place is already losing money with the Vikings playing there. The last of the stadium commission’s cash reserves would be gone in a year or two and then what…. an $8 – $10 million annual subsidy just to keep the roof blown-up?

  17. Submitted by Tony Spadafora on 03/30/2011 - 09:22 am.

    The weighted average of the funding from private sources for the ten stadium shown in comment #14… 62.0%.

    That’s a far cry from the one the third the cost of an open-air stadium that Zygi & Co. have offered.

  18. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/30/2011 - 10:26 am.


    Ziggy is trying to make money here not spend it, why are you surprised by 30% offer? It is nice to see that some owners have found a way to come with 70% or more of the money, it reinforces the claim that these guys can build their own stadiums with minimum public subsidy.

    I must say however, that even if the public dime were to be limited to 30% that would still be the equivalent of building another Twins stadium, and cost us $20 million a year. that means we be dumping a minimum of $40 million a year in tax money of some kind into pro-sport subsidies at a time when Republican are closing down state parks, cutting subsidies for public transportation and education. I say it would still be too much ask. And that’s not including the bailouts being envisioned for the T-Wolves and Wild arenas.

    I’d say the public portion has to limited to around 10%-15% of the cost.

    Has anyone ever done a deal where the Government raises the money with bonds but the team pays off the debt? The team and the league would also have to guarantee payment to the taxpayers couldn’t get stuck with the bill. It would basically be a low interest loan for the owners. In our scenario the Pohlads would be paying off the $20 million a year instead of Henn Co.

  19. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/30/2011 - 10:37 am.

    At the end of the day though I have to say the Vikings look like they’re going to be one of the victims of this Republican train wreck. How in the world are they going to a stadium deal?

    I think Dayton’s playing the game. He’s talking about a deal that’s good for taxpayers and the public. I think he’s positioning himself so that he looks like the guy that was willing to deal but the blame will be on the Republicans. It’ll just one more example of Republican incompetence. If they come up some kind of deal for hundreds of millions of dollars while they cut education, health care, state parks etc. Dayton can just say well, I was willing to deal but this is bad deal- VETO.

    I think we should be talking about what will happen when no deal gets done. And not just talking about whether or not the team will leave, I don’t care if the team leaves. What I want to know is what happens to the lease at the dome, where do they play the 2012 season? I say we demand new dome lease and lock em out if they don’t sign. I’d be willing to put some money into the rehabbing the dome as lease condition, but I don’t see why would cut the Wilf slack so he can keep trying to get hundreds of millions of tax dollars, that’s NOT in the public’s interest.

  20. Submitted by Tony Spadafora on 03/30/2011 - 10:57 am.


    There’s some nonsensical federal legislation from 1986 that says the public cannot use stadium revenues to pay off income tax exempt bonds.

    You asked about the owners paying off bonds… well they could not with stadium revenues if the bonds are income taxes exempt which carry lower interest rates for obvious reasons.

  21. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/30/2011 - 11:40 am.

    //You asked about the owners paying off bonds… well they could not with stadium revenues if the bonds are income taxes exempt which carry lower interest rates for obvious reasons.

    Thanks Tony,

    Who said anything about stadium revenues? I don’t care where they get the money, the point is they would be responsible for the payments. Apparently once the new stadium opened the Pohlads had another what? $40 million a year for their payroll? I don’t know where they got it, but I’m saying half of it could have gone into stadium payments.

  22. Submitted by WIlliam Bentley on 03/30/2011 - 02:05 pm.

    The Metrodome is only obsolete for NFL football. It’s perfectly suitable for dog shows, rollerdome, bar mitzvahs, and all the other unimpressive events afforded by a closed stadium.

    If the metrodome’s non-Viking event schedule isn’t enough to justify the building’s upkeep, then a $200 million roof on a new stadium and the associated upkeep certainly can’t be justified.

    The new stadium should be open-air regardless of who pays for it. A roof wouldn’t even pay for itself and would only make the whole project even more of a money hole.

  23. Submitted by Tony Spadafora on 03/30/2011 - 02:38 pm.

    William… building three stand-alone, open-air stadiums to replace the Metrodome would be perfectly absurd.

  24. Submitted by WIlliam Bentley on 03/31/2011 - 04:25 pm.

    Two of those stadiums are already built. As there is no going back on them, they are no longer relevant to the discussion.

    What is truly absurd is the suggestion of adding costs that will never recoup themselves to an already overpriced project. I’m not saying a stadium -should- be built for the Vikings. I’m saying that -if- a stadium is built, we should certainly not increase the price by $200 million (an increase of something like 43% to the public contribution) for a roof to accomodate events that generate little revenue.

    It would be like buying a hundred dollar metal detector to find ten bucks worth of lost change.

  25. Submitted by Tony Spadafora on 03/31/2011 - 10:28 pm.

    Instead of a third open-air stadium, why not expand TCF Bank Stadium with more seats, more Club seats, and more private suites? It is expandable to 80,000 seats… that’s 15,000 more than the Vikings need.

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